When Jill Stephens stepped onto campus at Florida Southern in 1991, she never thought it would be where her volleyball odyssey started and ended.

LAKELAND — When Jill Stephens stepped onto campus at Florida Southern in 1991, she never thought it would be where her volleyball odyssey started and ended.

Over the course of four seasons, Stephens grew into one of the top players in program history. She played in four NCAA tournaments, twice being named an All-American while setting a number of school records along the way.

Stephens graduated and began her coaching career as an assistant at Florida Atlantic before returning to Florida Southern to work under her mentor, Lois Webb.

When Webb retired in 2001, she tabbed Stephens as her replacement. It was an easy choice. She would lead the Mocs to the NCAA tournament 15 times over the next 17 years, winning 396 matches before reaching the national title match in 2017.

Stephens, 44, has retired from coaching after 23 years at Florida Southern.

“Florida Southern is so special to me,” said Stephens, who first came to Southern as a volleyball camper in the ninth grade. “It’s just been part of who I am; the Florida Southern way. I’m incredibly proud. It’s been ingrained in who I am.”

The Mocs fell short of their first national title in December, losing to Concordia-St. Paul in the NCAA championship match. It was a major moment in program history and it came 26 years after their last appearance at the NCAA National Championships.

Florida Southern athletic director Pete Meyer is very familiar with Stephens. Both were assistant and head coaches — Meyer in baseball and Stephens in volleyball — at the same time during the mid-2000s.

“Jill has been a fabulous role model for not only for our female student athletes, but our student athletes as a whole,” Meyer said. “She carries herself in a very professional way with a very positive outlook and that stands out among coaches.”

While her first year as head coach at Florida Southern was, without question her worst, it played a major role in shaping the direction of the program going forward.

“My first season was the first losing season in the history of the program,” she says with a laugh. “I learned quickly that Lois (Webb) knew a lot. I leaned on her a great deal and we didn’t have too many (more) of those types of seasons.”

Webb’s involvement with the program has lessened over the years, but she’s proud of what her pupil has accomplished. That was apparent in hearing her talk about the Mocs’ run to the NCAA finals earlier this year.

“I have the utmost respect for Jill Stephens and how she has continued to build the volleyball program to the powerhouse that it is,” Webb said. “I’m thrilled for her.”

Florida Southern, for the most part, has been all Stephens has known over the past two decades. She credits Webb and her coach at Cardinal-Gibbons, Louise Crocco, as her mentors. They showed her how to lead young people.

And using that knowledge to mentor countless young women over the years is what she will look back at most fondly.

“To see people go to (physician assistant) school ad get their doctorates and be great moms and successful business women. That’s the exciting part of it,” she said. “From young kids that are just growing up to (be) amazing young women who are confident and strong — that’s what it’s all about.”

Brady Fredericksen can be reached at brady.fredericksen@theledger.com or 863-802-7553. Follow him on Twitter: @Brady_Fred.